Excuses for ministers' nonattendance at a summit hosted by the public protector reveal high levels of tension over the release of the Nkandla report.
President Jacob Zuma, two of his senior ministers and Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane stayed away from a recent high-profile public protector's event. The snub comes as relations between the government, the ANC and public protector Thuli Madonsela continue to deteriorate in the wake of her contentious investigation into the R205-million security upgrades at Zuma's private homestead in Nkandla.
Even though the government funded the African ombudsman summit hosted by Madonsela last month, all four top government leaders separately claimed that they had prior commitments or other engagements that prevented them from attending the event.
Madonsela told the summit that the role of public protectors or ombudsmen was to "curb excesses in the exercise of state power and control over state resources".
Zuma, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and Mokonyane failed to attend the summit in Kempton Park.
Although Madonsela has been under attack from several ministers and members of the ANC alliance, her security of tenure is constitutionally protected. In South Africa, the public protector is appointed for a nonrenewable period of seven years and her salary or term cannot be interfered with.
A resolution to remove the public protector from office needs a vote by two-thirds of the national assembly.
The apparent snub came a month before Madonsela is due to release her final report on the security upgrades at Nkandla on Wednesday.
Since the Mail & Guardian reported on her provisional Nkandla report in December, Madonsela has incurred the wrath of the ANC, its alliance partners, the leagues and the government security cluster, led by Radebe.
On Thursday, a group calling itself Pastors of Indigenous Christian Churches launched a scathing attack on Madonsela.
Its spokesperson, Bishop Pule Mokgethi, accused Madonsela of a political agenda in regard to Independent Electoral Commission chair Pansy Tlakula, SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng and Zuma.
He claimed Madonsela's reports on Zuma, Tlakula and Motsoeneng intended to cast aspersions on the leaders ahead of the May 7 general elections.
"Our concern about her Nkandla report is that she [is] releasing it on the same day that the IEC has invited political parties to come and sign the electoral code of conduct," said Mokgethi.
"We did not want to punt the date of the release, but it leaves much to be desired. We publicly indicated that, where we think she is correct, we will say so. If Zuma is out of line, you will see us. If she is wrong on Zuma, you will see us as well."
The absence of government officials from the summit was privately construed by officials as a "snub" of the public protector following fierce exchanges and strained relations between the government and Madonsela. Mokonyane was expected to welcome the delegates from 30 African countries.
Her spokesperson, Thebe Mohatle, said: "The days in question followed immediately after the premier's state of the province address at the Gauteng legislature. Ordinarily, she would have honoured the invitation had it not been for prior and post [address] commitments that were already confirmed."
Nkoana-Mashabane was expected to introduce Zuma and later address a gala dinner at the summit. But her no-show led to organisers hastily arranging a discussion panel instead.
Nkoana-Mashabane's spokesperson, Clayson Monyela, said the minister was keen to attend but was unable to do so because of her hectic schedule. He said the department sent two officials to represent it.
Zuma was invited to give a keynote address. His spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, said the president had other engagements during the time of the two-day summit.
"He had other commitments. Remember, during that time, we had to attend the budget [speech by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan] in Cape Town," said Maharaj.
Radebe, who led Cabinet's security cluster – which threatened to drag Madonsela to court in connection with the Nkandla report – dismissed suggestions that the government had snubbed the summit.
He said he had not attended the summit because he had other commitments, but he had instructed officials from his department to attend the summit.
"We [the justice department] facilitated the summit," said Radebe. "I personally went to Cabinet to motivate for the budget to be approved, and it was approved. We paid for the summit."
But the public protector's spokesperson, Kgalalelo Masibi, said Radebe had confirmed his attendance and was therefore put on the final programme.
"The public protector was advised by her staff on the day of the summit that Minister Radebe's office said he was no longer available," Masibi said. "The public protector received notification on the same day that the director general would delegate the chief operating officer of the department of justice and constitutional development to attend.
"Minister Nkoana-Mashabane confirmed attendance through her chief of staff and was on the programme as a result. The public protector later received an email indicating that the minister would be represented by [director general] ambassador [Jerry] Matjila."
Tension between Madonsela and ANC politicians, according to government insiders, is so high that some party leaders have suggested her final report on Nkandla should be ignored while the government focuses on implementing the recent interministerial task team report, which exonerates Zuma.
The interministerial report recommended disciplinary action against government officials accused of inflating prices on the Nkandla project.
The ANC has also expressed its unhappiness that Madonsela is planning to release the report two months before the elections.
"Most ANC leaders don't take her [Madonsela] seriously anymore," said the senior government official. "They have started isolating her because of her handling of Nkandla."
A tense meeting between Madonsela's office and ANC top brass last month damaged the already strained relations.
Last year, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe accused Madonsela of being biased, and playing to the public gallery.
The security upgrade at Zuma's private house, which has cost taxpayers more than R200-million, has sparked a public outcry and pollsters speculate that it could have an impact on the ANC's electoral performance.
Although the interministerial task team report cleared Zuma of any wrongdoing, Madonsela's provisional report found that he personally benefited, and recommended that the president be called to account for failing to safeguard state resources and for misleading Parliament.
Zuma has repeatedly told the legislature that he and his family paid for all work at Nkandla that was not related to security improvements.
But Madonsela's provisional report found a swimming pool, a visitors' centre, an amphitheatre, a cattle kraal, a marquee area, extensive paving and new houses for relatives included in the upgrade at "enormous cost" to the taxpayer.
She wants Zuma to apologise to Parliament and pay back some of the money, according to her provisional report.